I haven’t even seen La La Land, so this is not a review of that film. The picture accompanying this article is only related to the subject in spirit and is primarily there for bait to increase readership. La La Land seems like a pretty cool movie, and from the brief snippets I’ve heard of its soundtrack, its music is probably intoxicating, jazzy, and maybe even original. Its two starring actors manage to look highly attractive and suave in all of the ads and stills I’ve seen and I bet that this translates into captivating motion on screen during the actual event of watching La La Land. I’ve gathered from some media outlets, including Saturday Night Live, that La La Land may represent yet another tiring instance of Hollywood “whitewashing,” as it is a film about jazz that stars two white actors (this criticism resting on the implication that jazz music was gradually formed by the profoundly unique experiences and reactions of African-Americans in the twentieth century – an assertion I can adamantly defend). Nevertheless, I really enjoyed and vaguely identified with Damien Chazelle’s work on Whiplash, and so I can say with some degree of certainty that when it appears at Cornell Cinema (or when someone I know illegally downloads it to their computer), I would watch and enjoy La La Land.
While this can’t be defined as a review of La La Land, it could definitely be considered a pondering editorial on the overwhelming response that the film has generated. I recently came across a note I made last semester on my phone that simply states “musicals absolutely best form of social commentary” (ah, everyone has to love that cryptic charm of iPhone notes) and so the success that La La Land has enjoyed seems to provide an adequate opportunity to approach that empowering aura of the modern musical. Everyone in my circle of fellow arts appreciators raves about the film; this includes one friend of mine who, approximately five minutes into the 2012 version of Les Miserables, stood up and walked out of the theater because the actors sing through the whole movie and he doesn’t like musicals. What is it about the musical form that creates seemingly universal acclaim of La La Land or other productions like Hamilton or Phantom of the Opera?
Well for starters, there is the power of good songwriting. The soundtracks that comprise most musicals function as wholly secularized, virtual versions of the symphony. Like Beethoven Five’s “DA DA DA DUM,” musical soundtracks posses their own catchy and recurring motifs, like the ubiquitous four-note sequence first heard at the beginning of “At the End of the Day” and subsequently throughout Les Mis, or the epic, organ-tastic blare in the overture of Phantom. Yet, despite this Beethoven example, musicals don’t necessarily resemble the deeply introspective, isolationist symphonic tradition of the Romantic nineteenth century, but rather the whimsical and popular habits of Mozart and the music of the eighteenth century. This is precisely where musicals derive their formulaic charm. The writers of the best musicals seem to so eloquently summarize in their scores the most trendy and malleable traits of the most beloved popular music of their day and then synthesize it perfectly with the musical’s own topic or setting. Thus, the genius of some composers is born, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s combination of 1980s synthesizer-driven melodrama and the gaudiness of Paris opera culture, or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beautiful fusion of rap and mock 1770s orchestral, revolutionary overtones (composition is such a relentlessly male-dominated field, but that is a different topic worthy of its own column).
What about the story and the acting and the drama? The best musicals are drawn out like novels, with characters and conditions that touch upon some familiar settings and themes that are remarkably human. This may be a nineteenth century Parisian revolution, or the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City, both being relatable to some individuals in some regions at almost all times. Is it then entirely ridiculous and trivializing to have these characters break out into numbers of song and dance? Well it’s certainly ridiculous, but definitely not trivializing. I think that somewhere in our own subconsciouses we all wish for something similar, some Dionysian fantasy where our lives are so meaningful and passionate that we too can start singing and somewhere an orchestra plays in an unseen place and some hidden audience is invested and genuinely concerned.
Or maybe this audience (us) is really just a group of hypocrites, and musical theatre and its cinematic equivalents are mere Western luxuries selling for too much money per ticket – Book of Mormon certainly inflicts this bitter irony. Perhaps the mere existence of such a moral dilemma is what renders musical theatre poignant and oddly captivating. Regardless, I think I’d better go watch Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing on screen for a while.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.